Todd Haynes’s May December is a booby trap of a movie. It’s designed to pull you in multiple directions at once, and it uses emotional disassociation to its advantage: It makes you feel one thing, and then makes you wonder if you should be feeling something entirely different instead. Alfred Hitchcock used to talk about being able to play the audience like a piano, hitting each key to get a specific emotional response; Haynes plays us like an accordion, stretching us out in myriad ways to hit the right notes.
What the hell am I talking about? Set in Savannah, Georgia, May December is built around a research trip by a well-known movie and TV star, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) to visit Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and her husband Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). Back in the 1990s, when Gracie was a 36-year-old mother of two and Joe had just finished seventh grade, they had an affair (is it okay to call it an “affair”?) while working at a local pet shop. They hit the tabloids, and Gracie went to jail, where she had Joe’s baby behind bars. But then they got married and are still together, with their kids now about to graduate from high school. Elizabeth has been cast to play Gracie in a movie and is here to study her life. “I want you to feel seen,” she earnestly tells Gracie, using the cultural cliché of our times. “Just be kind,” a neighbor tells her, using another.
May December is very funny and light on its feet, but it’s also a deeply uncomfortable movie. Watching it at Cannes, I found myself cackling with delight along with an audience of 2,000 other people. Stepping out into the rainy night, however, I felt like I needed to take a shower. I think that was the intention. This is the kind of subject that’s been fodder for broad comedies in the past (Adam Sandler’s That’s My Boy! being one), but Haynes uses humor for different ends here, embracing the tonal disjointedness to make us feel the unease.
The film’s surfaces are pleasant and gentle, the performances quiet. But early on, after Gracie checks the fridge ahead of a cookout and realizes that they don’t have enough hot dogs, dramatic piano music kicks in, announcing the ridiculous tonal shifts this seemingly placid film will take. (The score, by Marcelo Zarvos, is actually an adaptation and reorchestration of Michel Legrand’s music for Joseph Losey’s 1971 forbidden-romance drama The Go-Between.) Haynes punctuates other seemingly mundane scenes in similarly grandiose fashion. He uses the trappings of camp to draw attention to the disconnect between what’s happening onscreen and our response to it.
That’s because the movie itself is about the characters’ disconnect from what’s happening. When Elizabeth first shows up, Gracie has just received a box in the mail with shit inside; apparently it was a common occurrence back in the day but has slowed in recent years, which might explain why she seems so calm about it. In public, Gracie is the very image of composure, though in private she’s often on the verge of tears. She’s also a complete micromanager who doesn’t seem to know when she’s being downright cruel. She notes with concern when Joe’s had a second bottle of beer. She forces her son to drink milk at dinner, because of his “severe calcium deficiency” and how weak he looks. (The kid looks perfectly fine.) “I want to commend you for being so brave and showing your arms like that,” she tells her daughter as the girl tries on graduation dresses. We sense that Gracie has always been like this — always mothering, frequently smothering. Her first husband, Tom (D.W. Moffett), tells Elizabeth that they met when he was in college and she was in high school; Gracie took care of him one night when he was drunk. One imagines what the always-hovering Gracie herself might have done had a grown woman seduced her 13-year-old.
Joe, meanwhile, seems to still be a child at the age of 36. He has a shy, hesitant way of speaking that suggests something of the seventh-grader he once was, despite the fact that he’s about to be an empty nester. Over the years he’s become fascinated with endangered Monarch butterflies and has been breeding them at home, then setting them free — not exactly the subtlest of metaphors, but still kind of beautiful. Joe never got to transition into a butterfly; he’s still essentially in a larval state, stuck in a relationship that started when he was a child.
And yet, among all these screwed-up people, Portman’s Elizabeth might be the most screwed-up of all. Watching Gracie, she notes her physical features and her demeanor. (“Mechanical, or just removed?” she asks herself.) She’s highly observant and astute, but she also seems on the verge of becoming completely submerged within Gracie’s identity. When Elizabeth goes to talk to a group of high-schoolers, she’s asked about what it’s like to do a sex scene. She notes that they’re usually highly choreographed, but then talks about “losing the line,” about letting reality and fiction blend together. Her voice crawls to a sensuous whisper as she speaks, as if she’s about to lose the line right then and there, in front of all these kids.
Nobody has any boundaries in this film, which means everyone around them has to face the consequences, an endless cycle of abuse in all its forms. The film is both humane and scathing. Which is why Haynes’s stylistic treatment of the subject, veering between noirish gusto and flights of snark, winds up being so touching. It feels at times like the director himself looking for the right tone with which to tell this story. He doesn’t know exactly how to feel about all this. So he feels all the things, and makes sure we do, too.
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